The world’s first syndicated gaming journalist was an 11-year-old

In 1980, nine-year-old Rawson Stovall requested an Atari 2600 for Christmas. Santa Claus did not play the game.

“I didn’t get one, but our neighbors got one,” he says. After that, Stovall wasn’t going to drop a random Atari. “I was just like, I can’t trust Santa this year, I have to make it happen myself.” Stovall set about picking pecans from three trees in the family yard, shelling them, halving them and packing them to sell, which eventually brought in about $220, enough to finally buy the console her dreams. “My parents were very supportive of it all, but my dad felt like video games were a waste of time and money,” he says.

The Vid Kid went to newspaper offices in a three-piece suit with a briefcase

Soon after, Stovall became the first video game journalist with a syndicated weekly column across the United States.

“The Vid Kid” was born in the Abilene Reporter News, the local newspaper in Stovall, Texas, a year after buying his 2600 and realizing that video games were also expensive (about $30-40 a cartridge in 1982 , or $91 to $122 today). “Games back then, they didn’t often have pictures of the game on the back,” he says. “All you really had to do was the art of the packaging, the title and maybe the reputation of the game company.” The lack of coverage prompted Stovall to champion game reviews as a necessity for a new generation of consumers.

“What got me were the TV show reviews. I’m like, they’re free, watch them!” he says. “Whether you like it or not, you can decide!” But there was nothing for video games.

Stovall, who had already done a lot of cold calling and house-calling for school fundraisers, went to then-Abilene Reporter News editor Dick Tarpley with six pre-written sample reviews. The newspaper decided to give him a writing test to make sure his parents weren’t doing the work for him. “Their entertainment editor took me to see Tron and then we both went back to the newsroom. And on the computers, which was my first time – it was like a green screen and they had to tell me learn what word processing was – we wrote reviews,” says Stovall. Both reviews appeared in the paper the next morning, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Vid Kid started out on a six-week trial basis. Stovall proposed a bulletin-type grading system (opens in a new tab) with familiar notes that his readers would understand. “It was a good thing, the kid who made the bulletin for a change,” he says. Stovall’s father, regional director of the Texas State Department of Health, took him on work trips to different cities, where he visited newspaper offices in a three-piece suit with a briefcase. “I just syndicated it myself to about 10 different newspapers, mostly in Texas,” he says. It spread to the San Jose Mercury News and “about 25 newspapers” before the column was further syndicated by the Universal Press Syndicate. The suit and briefcase routine was a key part of his strategy – he believed that adults were far more likely to hear a well-dressed child than another adult, and the familiar image of a Stovall in a suit is eventually became canon.

The Vid Kid logo

(Image credit: Rawson Stovall)

Stovall knew how to think big thanks to his fundraising experiences at school. Instead of visiting the same old homes, he strategically visited offices, banks, and oil and gas companies, where he spoke to managers and sold raffle tickets en masse. He applied this same holistic approach to his column’s syndication goals. When he started writing, he had a fantasy of being paid $50 per column. “All I had to do was get it in 100 newspapers, and then I’d just write one article and take monthly trips to Hawaii,” he says.

Instead, he was earning $5 per column, which was still unsustainable for a child trying his best every week. “But if you can syndicate it to 10 newspapers, it suddenly costs about $50 a week, and that beats the pecans.”

The original streamer

Zot the Avenger

(Image credit: JJ Styles)

Meet the original streamer (opens in a new tab): At age 12, JJ Styles ran his own public-access game show in 1993.

In 1983, he needed special dispensation to attend the Chicago Summer Consumer Electronics Show as a minor, where he worked the show with business cards and did interviews with Nolan Bushnell and David Crane. from Activision. At the time, he was already unionized in 11 newspapers. A curious New York Times writer spotted and reported on it, which was a game-changer for the Vid Kid. In the mid-’80s, Stovall had appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and CBS Morning News. In 1984, he gave the opening speech for Bits & Bytes, the first national computer show for children, where Sierra featured Mickey’s Space Adventure and Mindscape featured Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

In 1985, he even showcased the NES at Nintendo’s North American launch in New York. “I was there but didn’t recognize it at the time as such a great moment in history,” Stovall recalled. It was right after the Atari market crashed, and the general public feeling was that video games were over. “At one point, I had about an hour with Miyamoto to show me [Super Mario Brothers]and I just loved it the first time I saw it,” he says. Stovall remembers being obsessed with Mario, but he didn’t get his own copy for months after. piece of wood in the console to make the game cartridge stay. “I just thought it was so lame,” he laughs.

For someone who was at the forefront of how games were written in the United States, Stovall remains modest about his influence. At the time, his approach to reviews was – unsurprisingly given the overwhelming enthusiasm for new technology at the time and the fact that he was a child – mostly celebratory.

Vid Kid's Home Video Game Book

(Image credit: Rawson Stovall, Internet Archive)

“With the idea that all press is good press, I wanted to put good press on good games,” he says, citing two negative exceptions – Pac-Man for the Atari 2600, which he considered such an important release that she had to be written about, and Rambo for the NES. “But I think almost all of my reviews were positive, just because there were so many great games.” Among the fan mail sent to the newspaper, he also received “strange hate letters” from readers, which shows that some things just don’t change.

Once it was time to go to college in the late 80s, it was over for the Vid Kid. There were no acting-related degrees at the time, so Stovall studied film. He then worked at EA, Sony, Activision and MGM Interactive, in various roles such as tester, quality assurance manager and producer. Today, Stovall is a senior designer at Concrete Software and works on mobile games. “My perception is that games are harder to make than movies or TV shows,” he says, pointing to the unpredictability of changing software, aging hardware, and “a million ways for something going badly”. In his spare time, he slowly sorts through eight boxes of video game history from his mother’s house, full of artifacts from his childhood career.

He plans to write another book about this chapter of his life (his first was an 80-review game collection, The Vid Kid’s Book of Home Video Games). “I was watching Stranger Things with my son, and I’m doing the math on how old those kids would be today, if everything was real,” he says. “And it was like, ‘Oh wait, at the same time they were doing this, I was writing about video games’.”

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